Eyes In the Sky Over Sandy Springs?

By Russ Coker

The use of drones has exploded over the last several years, with the (mostly) flying robots so ubiquitous that it is easy to forget that even as recently 10 years ago, no consumer-grade versions of the devices were even available. (See the Foundation’s March 2017 article on the subject).

The implications of the topic are coming to bear in a very real way for those in metro Atlanta, with a proposal to bring law enforcement drones to Sandy Springs. As reported in a city staff memo and by reporternewspapers.net, the city is considering the use of a new and ruggedly-equipped drone device for purposes including “Photographing and video recording crime scenes … [a]ssisting in reconnaissance for high risk warrant service … [f]ollowing suspects on the run … [and] [p]roviding general surveillance of special events.”

While these general and generic descriptions might give some pause, there could also be concerns about the constitutional and other legal and civil implications of drone use. Sandy Springs could serve as a perfect example and test case – in terms of legal precedent and individual rights – of how the government might involve drones in its law enforcement agencies.

The use raises questions about not only the effectiveness and accountability of information provided by drones, but the more general constitutional concerns. Lower courts have wrestled with the question in varied contexts, but there is not yet direct precedent passed down from the U.S. Supreme Court.  Older, semi-related cases include Florida v. Riley, a 1989 case tackling a permissive, warrantless search from the air using a manned plane or helicopter (presumably much louder, harder to get close with, and noisier than modern drones).

Many have written about the potential implications of the up-and-coming technology for legislatures, law enforcement and the average citizen. Pepperdine law professor Gregory McNeal writes for the Brookings Institute on “Drones and aerial surveillance: Considerations for legislatures.” He notes how legislators in states and at the federal level can learn from applicable judicial rulings when drafting drone-related statutes and regulations.

The Cato Institute policy analysis, “Surveillance Takes Wing: Privacy in the Age of Police Drones,” takes a deep dive into some of the forward-looking and more theoretical implications of drone use for Fourth Amendment privacy purposes and related topics.

The Foundation will continue to cover the subject of police (and other law enforcement) use of unmanned drones and aerial vehicles, as well as the legal and privacy implications their use brings.

Ross Coker is Director of Research and Outreach of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. The Foundation is an independent think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the view of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (May 24, 2017). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.

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